The Global State of Renewable Energy

By 2012, renewable energy production in the US (10.9% of total) is expected to eclipse nuclear production (11.3%) for the first time. Worldwide, half of all new electric installations in 2010 were renewables. Solar PV capacity saw a whopping 72% increase globally from 2009 to 2010.

Stats like these presented today at the release of REN21's new Renewables 2011 Global Status Report seemed encouraging - despite the politics around climate change and manufactured controversies about solar subsidies in the US, renewable production is seeing impressive growth worldwide. A snapshot (click to expand):

Representatives from REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century), the WorldWatch Institute and members of Congress were on hand at today's event to comment on the data.

Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey (the lone physicist in Congress) saw the report - which shows the US lagging behind countries like China and Germany (and Spain, Japan and Italy) in wind and PV capacity respectively - presenting an imperative to US policy makers. "A clear conclusion of this [report], for me, is that we shouldn't just sit back and watch," he said. "Because what we are watching is the rest of the world eating our lunch and our failure to prepare for what we need to prepare for."

Debunking the idea that natural gas production helps the growth of renewable energy by replacing dirty sources like coal, James Bradbury, Senior Associate in WRI's Climate and Energy Program explained that natural gas appears to hinder renewable energy:

Representative (and longtime environmental champion) Ed Markey's speech was the highlight of the afternoon. Markey, of course, is co-author of two of the most important environmental bills in Congress in recent years: 2007's Energy Independence and Security Act which raised fuel economy standards, and the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 whose failure was a gut-punch to the environmental community. Here's Markey's funny, pointed and empowering speech (here's the preamble). He dashed away at the end because he had to vote on the House floor:

Several panelists stressed that much of the growth in a transition to renewables can be seen in developing countries and at the local/regional/state levels (REN21's got a report on that too). Dale Medearis of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission claimed that his organization is running "the best local energy mitigation plan in the US", largely because of their willingness to learn lessons from other regions around the world. From small-grid systems in Bangladesh to carbon neutrality targets in Austin, Texas, municipalities are doing much of the legwork on this transition.

And of course, you can't mention the growth of renewables without mentioning China. In 2010 they invested $50 billion in renewable energy, ahead of Germany ($41 billion - nothing to sneeze at for a country of that size) and the US ($30 billion). Most of China's investment last year went to wind power. Egypt and Kenya are leading the pack in Africa and Mexico saw a 348% increase (!) in investment after the government announced new renewables targets in 2009. Policy matters.

The goal of REN21 is to foster and support a rapid transition to renewable energy. Rapid being the key word here since, as panelist Bradbury said, referring to the International Energy Agency (IEA) report released last week, "We're running out of time. Rapidly" (his other fave report: Hidden Costs of Energy by the National Research Council). Are all these encouraging stats on renewable growth, in other words, enough to address the bleak prospects ahead of us? The jury's still out.